I feel the rumble of the motorcycle engines before I can hear them. The glasses on the bar start to shake and I slip, dropping one. It falls on the polished wood bar with a thud. Thank God it doesn’t shatter.And then I hear them. Tires scraping against gravel. Engines without mufflers. The air changes. I’m filled with worry, like someone’s injected it into me. I reach up to put my fingers against my throat. I don’t know why. I haven’t done that since I was a little kid, afraid of the dark.Just plain afraid.My stepfather comes running from the back office, his eyes wild and arms tight with tension. His face is twisted with something I’ve never seen before. For a second, it makes me want to smile. For once, he looks like he’s nervous about something.
“Allie, you stay calm. Keep washing glasses.” His dark eyes narrow and he goes back to being cool and collected. The deep grooves of wrinkles in his face settle back to normal. His eyes are thin and tight, brown underneath the loose skin.
He’s tall and wiry, fingers stained from chain smoking unfiltered Camels. He looks at least ten years older than he is. My mother’s death two years ago aged him. It aged me, too, but I wear it on the inside.
He wears it on his face.
Jeff has two emotions. Angry and neutral. I’ve seen a lot of angry, but not much neutral.
He looks like he feels fear right now. That’s new.
I push my long, black hair behind one ear. I wish I had a scrunchie to pull it back in a ponytail. August in the dry, desert heat of inland Southern California means it’s always hot. Any other summer and I’d be getting ready to go back to school, but I graduated this year. Late summer stretches out like one hot, empty void.
Like the rest of a life I need to live but can’t.The air conditioners have been groaning all day. The sound of the motorbikes drowns them out now.They are in the parking lot. Two. Three. Four. I can’t keep track of how many bikes pull up. My heartraces but I keep it together. The last time a motorcycle gang came in, the bar got trashed. They beat Jeff up and the sheriff came.
Jeff can’t afford to have that happen again.
Blood rushes through me, pulsing hard. My fear is loud and clear.
He also got angry. Very angry.
I can’t afford to have that happen again.
Working at the bar is my only way to save money to move out of this town. I want to go live with my sister in Los Angeles. If the bar shuts down I don’t know what I’ll do. My hands polish the same shot glass over and over, like it’s a piece of silver.
My heart dances in my chest. I look down at my t-shirt and see drops of sweat trickling down from my neck.
The air is not that hot. I’m nervous. Terrified.
One of the bikers roars his engine outside. Another one does the same. Jeff comes back out with his cell phone in hand and starts talking angrily to someone on the phone. He is careful not to say anything loud enough for me to understand. I can’t hear a word. I can hear his fury, though.
I finish the shot glasses and load them on the shelf where they go. I’m shaking from the inside.
The main door opens a tiny sliver. Blinding sunlight pours in like it’s invading.
And then he walks in through the door. The sunlight behind him is a halo, like he’s an angel. A rough one. The most amazing vision.
Thick, scuffed leather boots with hard wooden heels crack against the bare wood floor, one at a time.
My eyes start with that first boot. Then I see another. He wears jeans, the kind that are used to being on a motorcycle rider’s body. His pants mold to thick, muscled legs.
He wears a red and blue patch with an insignia I can’t see. Sunlight bounces off a thick belt buckle.
My blood runs cold and I freeze in place, my legs turning to jelly. I lean against the counter for support.
I’m glad it’s there. My fingers need something to grab. My world is disintegrating under me. Looking at him replaces the world.
He’s a member of a motorcycle club.
I gaze at the patch he’s wearing but I can’t see it very clearly. It has a blue figure with red crescents on both sides. A warm rush of blood fills my face. His thick leather jacket is dirty and well-worn, dark as my hair and creased with age. A light-blue T-shirt sticks to his belly, slick with sweat. I can see the ridges of his abs. My fingers want to reach out and trace the lines of his muscles. I clench my fists so I won’t give in to the impulse.
“Jeff here?” His first words sound like ragged smoke and sunshine. My eyes meet his and he stays serious. We look at each other and time stops. Just…stops. His eyes widen and his jaw tightens as he searches my body with a look that says something I don’t understand.
But he feels what I feel. I can tell.
Pinpricks of heat from something other than the summer weather shoot through me. He looks like he’s older than me, and he’s steady and commanding. His hair is thick, the color of sand, and it’s messy, like he just rolled out of bed. Wolfish eyes skim over me, but he’s not in a rush.
I can’t breathe. I can’t move. I can’t do anything when he’s looking at me like that.
Please keep looking at me like that.
“Cat got your tongue?” he asks, his lips curling up in a half smile. His cheek moves the lines around his eyes. Light brown eyes with yellow chips, like someone shattered a gemstone. His eyes are like a lion’s, the color of a mane.
His eyes are dangerous and predatory. I can’t look away.
“Uh, Jeff’s in the back,” I say as the door closes slowly behind him, blocking out most of the light. I’m amazed that my mouth works at all. My mind can’t think. My body sure can feel, though.
I pause. What if I said the wrong thing? Jeff might not want anyone to know he’s here.
Vroom! Vroom! Engines blare outside. There are even more out there now. How many could there be? The man’s eyes narrow. He’s studying me. I like it. I don’t think I’m supposed to like it.
I can’t help myself.
“What’s your name?” he asks, a low rumble in his voice making me shiver. I’m not cold.
“Allie.” I shift and jut out my chin to show him I’m not afraid of him. “What’s yours?”
His grin widens and now he takes one more step forward. I can smell him. His scent is sunshine and dust with enough musk to make me take another deep breath.
He smells so real.
“Chase.” His name rolls off his lips. “Nice to meet you, Allie.” He reaches one gloved hand out to shake, then stops.
Pulling the glove off, he waves his hand in the air. “Sweaty.”
I clasp it anyway. It’s hot and slick. The touch of skin on skin makes everything else in the world disappear. Our eyes meet and we can’t stop staring. Am I imagining this?
“Nice to meet you too, I guess.” I look behind him, at the door. “Why are you here?”
He laughs, tipping his head back. It makes him seem less dangerous. “For a drink! This is a bar, after all.”
I smile, unable to tear my eyes away from him.
He’s staring right back.
The engines all trickle to silence. Boots scrape outside on the mottled gravel parking lot. Are they coming in? My heart swells and slams against my ribcage. If trouble is coming, I don’t know what to do. I’ve never been here before during an actual fight.
“All of you coming in?” I ask. If they’re paying customers, then this is fine. Jeff acts like this isn’t fine, though.
“Allie!” Jeff shouts from the back. “Get back here.” That sounds like an order. Jeff likes to order me around.
Chase frowns. “He always talk to you like that?” His words come out like a growl.
Surprised, I give him confused look. “Like what?”
“Like he doesn’t have to be nice.” His voice pounds through me like a heartbeat. He is being possessive, like a protective boyfriend. I only just met him.
The words sting because Chase is right. I swallow hard. Chase’s eyes are combing my face as if he’s trying to memorize me. I look away even as I wish he would watch me forever.
Chase. I want to say his name aloud simply to hear it on my tongue. To feel it roll over my lips. If I say his name then he’s really here, he really shook my hand, and he really is looking at me like he wants to.
Like he needs to.“Whose stepdad is nice to them?” I ask lightly, like I’m trying to blow off the comment. This is too intense. Too unreal. He’s right, though. A little too right.Chase’s fingers twitch and then his hand forms a fist. He’s staring in the direction where Jeff’s voice came from. He looks back toward the door where he entered.“Good point,” he mutters, running his bare hand through that mop of hair. It makes him seem stronger. Darker. More in command.
“One second,” I say, turning away. I can feel his eyes bore into me. If I turn around now, I bet he’s staring at me. As I walk through the threshold to the back hallway I pause. Pretending to adjust something on a shelf, I look in the mirror behind the bar and catch his reflection.
I’m right. A shiver runs so fast through me I have to inhale sharply. This is a new feeling. I don’t know what to do. He’s gorgeous and frightening and the first of many bikers to show up now.
“Allie!” Jeff barks. I scurry back, cursing him in my head but knowing it doesn’t matter. I turn the corner into his office and his voice is so sharp he might as well cut me with it.
“You stop talking to Chase Halloway.”
“You know him?” Chase Halloway. The name makes me buzz all over.
Jeff’s face tightens. I asked the wrong question. By now I should know better. The butterfly of panic flaps its wings in my chest. How could I be so stupid?
He gives me a look that makes my stomach burn.
“What I know isn’t any of your concern. You just serve those bikers and don’t make trouble. No checks. It’s all on the house.”
“What?” My jaw drops. I can’t help it. Jeff never comps drinks for anyone except the sheriff. And he knows I can’t serve drinks.
“You heard me. Don’t question it.” His voice is pure venom.
I won’t. Not again. Jeff is not a violent man. Not toward me, anyway. When he has his bad moods, though, life can be hard. Very, very hard.
Loud voices interrupt us. I turn away and rush down the hallway to find at least twenty men and two women standing at the bar, lined up in a confusing group of laughing and angry faces.
A wolf whistle cuts the air. “Hey there, pretty girl.” A man older than Jeff, with all-grey hair in a fringe around his balding head, whistles again.
“Where’s your daddy?” grunts another man. This one is huge, taller than Chase, but with features that are similar. Chase’s dad, maybe. It’s hard to tell. All the bikers are covered with a layer of road dirt. Their faces look tanner than they really are.
“I’ll be her daddy,” shouts someone in the crowd. “Her sugar daddy.” A bunch of men laugh. My whole body goes cold with fear. I shut down. All I can think about is the baseball bat behind the bar. If I can get back there, maybe I’ll be safe.
“Cut it out,” Chase says, louder than the laughter. I look to my left and see him, alone, standing right where I left him.
His eyes are on me. Only me. But his words are for the crowd.
“Claiming her already?” someone shouts. There’s a challenge in the question.
Chase steps forward, closer to me. When he’s only a foot away, he pauses. I can feel his heat reaching out to pull me in. His arms don’t, though.
Chase turns back to face them. “And if I am?”